Destiny takes you to places. On 28th June 2014, we landed on a parcel of land where we closed the missing link between India and China. Xiao Juan of Dongli Tea was visiting India. Together we went to Nepal to see what is happening there because so many are talking of Himalayan orthodox teas replacing Darjeeling, due to economic considerations. Between 1984 and 1989, I served as manager of the nearby Seeyok Tea Estate, so I knew many of the people as well as about a small tea growers’ movement which has been active for decades.
What we found bang on the border was a hamlet called “Chabbesey,” or 26 milestone. There, a wondrous micro factory was housed in a home. This factory has the capacity to produce about 10,000 kilos of made tea grown on a 20 acre plantation. It is family- owned and led by patriarch Ashok Subba. The family had been traditionally growing black cardamom, maize, ginger, turmeric and other cash crops on these lands, as well as forestation for fodder for their cows. The milk from these cows is processed by Himul Dairy in Siliguri.
The history: England’s Resident Agent was refused permission to plant tea in Nepal in exchange for a railway track laid from Darjeeling to Kathmandu. This railway was to bring food grains and salt from the plains and take timber and tea back. One Gajraj Singh Thapa planted Illam Tea Estate in the hills and Soktim Tea Estate in the plains of Nepal in 1863. After many years of solitude, local people started planting teas in the areas adjoining Indian tea industry, from Jhapa to Dhankuta districts, beginning in1966 and continuing to the present. Today, these produce about 25 million kilos of tea, inclusive of some 5 million kilos from the hills, which is akin to Darjeeling teas.
Cognac and Armagnac are similes for the Darjeeling and Nepal orthodox teas which nowadays are getting promoted as Himalayan teas. The absence of an established brand which also loosely covers Kangra teas (which recently has been protected by a Indian Tea Board logo while Darjeeling is being protected by CTM – Certification Trade Mark and PGI – Protected Geographical Indication) adds to the confusion.
Economy decides everything and time proves everything, so a quick establishment of a healthy marketing system which can ensure growers a decent return and respectful living wages for workers is the goal. Many models are working at this moment, from a monopolized Calcutta-based trade and export channel, to the model being being offered by Elyse Peterson’s Tealet. It remains to be seen which one succeeds first. The rumor that some people will start uprooting tea in order to switch to better alternatives is a murmur being heard in some corners.
Hoping for the best – to see Chabbesey prove to be a brand like Jun Chiyabari; which when first uttered hardly had a meaning other than a tea garden being planted by a farmer Gyawali family member. Over time, Jun Chiyabari became the most sought after name in the Nepal tea industry. It is almost comparable to Makaibari of Darjeeling, which does not need any introduction . . .